A friend of mine worked on the British Conservatives' 1997 election campaign, the party's worst defeat since the reign of Queen Victoria. Later, he reflected on what had gone wrong.
"We had two messages," he said. "One was: 'This is the same old Labour Party and it cannot be trusted.' The other was: 'This man Blair has stolen all our ideas!'"
A political party needs a story about itself and a story about its opponents. If those stories are contradictory, or if they do not accord with well-known facts, the story goes unheard or unbelieved.
Like the British Conservatives of 1997, today's GOP has two stories about President Obama.
The first is that he's a dangerous leftist who threatens American freedoms. This story is told not only by the angry voices on talk radio, but by senior Republican leaders like Newt Gingrich. "The modern left is essentially proto-totalitarian," Gingrich told the editors of National Review on Oct. 7. And President Obama "is a person of the left. The minute you accept that, you understand almost everything."
The second story is the one we heard after the award of the Nobel Peace Prize. In this version, the president is a man without accomplishments—all talk, no action.
Obviously, these stories cannot both be true. Republicans will have to choose. Which fits the facts better?
With each passing month, the case grows stronger for the latter story: the weak Obama, not the strong.
· The president made a series of controversial commitments to his base voters: to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, to end "Don't ask, don't tell," to support card-check legislation for unions. His record? No, no, and no. More tellingly, except for Guantánamo Bay, this 53-percent president has not even tried to act on his commitments—unlike George W. Bush, who won election with 48 percent, or Bill Clinton, who won with only 42 percent.
· The president has allowed Congress to write the two most important bills of his first year: health care and cap-and-trade. In both cases, Congress has shrugged off crucial presidential demands. Obama wanted health care to include a "public option." A 60-seat Democratic majority in the Senate has blown him off. He wanted cap-and-trade to auction off emissions rights, raising tens of billions of dollars to close the deficit. Democrats in the House and Senate have decided to give those rights away for free to utility companies.
· The president scrapped missile defense in Eastern Europe and declined to meet the Dalai Lama in an effort to win Russian and Chinese support for stiffer sanctions against Iran. Russia and China pocketed his concessions—and have delivered nothing in return.
· The president was deeply embarrassed by the Pentagon leak of a report calling for more troops for Afghanistan. Question: what happened to the leakers? Reassigned to the Greenland radar station? Nope. Nothing.
For an aspiring dictator—an appellation Fox's Glenn Beck once again applied to the president this week—Obama has compiled a shamefully thin record. But the record does nicely confirm Fred Armisen's "Saturday Night Live" impression of a haplessly feckless president unable to impose his will on anyone. "If I see any more of this hateful rhetoric, I'm going to have to take drastic action. Nah—not really."
The power of caricature is always derived from its basis in reality. As the GOP makes its case against this president, it would do well to follow the proven experts at Saturday Night Live—not the alternate reality of paranoid fantasy.